Thursday, 1 January 2015

Disharmony in the family

Family dysfunction

Always smiling for the camera. But I rarely encountered smiles in real life

The first memory that I had that indicated family patterns was when my beloved grandmother died in 1970. One would have assumed that as a 14-year-old I would attend the funeral that is what I would have liked to do. When she died I found my parents whispering and keeping things quiet, and when it came to the funeral a family friend Miss Bower was brought in to look after me while my parents went the funeral. This upset me no end and have never forgotten not being able to attend my grandmother’s funeral.

I have noticed a real inability in the family to deal with difficult emotions or difficult people. The family just shuts down and nothing ever gets mentioned or the person who was originally responsible for making other members of the family aware of some aspect of the shadow will somehow get blamed. I have noticed this time and time again and it has been a constant source of pain, especially in relationship to my brother.

Several early examples of things that were really painful have stated my mind. One example was when I was staying in the home of an old Russian friend who had died in a car accident while I was overseas (I was renting the house for a period). The whole feel of the place reminded me of a Russian dacha; there was a large section with an orchard at the back sorrowful arm.

I invited my mother over to have a look and she brought my brother Jeremy along whose only comment was that it would be perfect to knock down the house and subdivide the section.

After I had broken up with my erstwhile wife Natasha and she was moving to live in Belgium my brother took her to the airport. She was, predictably overweight with her luggage and was forced to leave some things behind, including a stereo set which she left in my brother’s keeping.

Natasha asked me if I could bring listeria over to her in Belgium and I was happy to do this and I mentioned this to my brother. When we were sitting on the plane together travelling to England I asked him about this and he said that he had sold the stereo. When I asked what right he thought he had to sell somebody else’s property he responded with the now familiar self-righteousness and said, “you don’t owe anything to Natasha!”

Admittedly this whole affair had been very stressful for my parents and cost them some money. It is also true Natasha’s motivations were far from clear and it seemed at least from the outside, that I had just been used. Seeing things from the inside, and having some understanding of the culture, I knew that things were a lot more complicated than that.

Natasha and Robin - the two newly weds, Leningrad, 1979

When Natasha and I were married in Leningrad I travelled to Russia with my sister Kathy and my cousin Rosie. We were joined in Leningrad by Jeremy. We will all looked after, wined and dined and nobody had just spend a single penny – so much so that I family, on leaving Russia got into some difficulties with the Customs explaining how they had all these gifts with them when their records show that they hadn’t spent any money.

When Natasha arrived in New Zealand, as a Russian she had some expectation that her generosity might, in some way, be reciprocated.

My parents, especially considering all the problems that this had landed for them with, were incredibly welcoming an open to Natasha and her accompanying family and had a warm relationship with them.

I can’t remember all the details but Jeremy displayed towards his new in-laws all the generosity of an accountant.

There was always self-righteous anger and unspoken resentment behind this.

On that 1982 trip to Europe Jeremy arranged, as he did for the whole family cheap tickets that he was able to get as an employee of the New Zealand for me to fly to Europe. Although he was perfectly aware of what my plans were, to stay in Europe, he did not think it was his responsibility to explain to me that the ticket only had one month validity. When it came time to return home I realised this and on raising it with my brother (can’t remember exactly what he said), all I got in response was self-righteous anger. As I remember it was only when my mother either pleaded with him or call the riot act, I don’t know which, that he reluctantly arranged another ticket home.

After my mother died in 1984 we all inherited some money from her. Both my brother and I, I think, invested some of this money in the stock market which was in a bubble at the time. I did the irresponsible thing and withdrew some of that money to cover the costs of an overseas trip.

"Happy families"

'Happy families' - three generations

I spent about 16 months away before returning in October, 1988. I knew that my first stop would be by brother and my sister-in-law’s place and as a then vegetarian my one nightmare was that the first meal offered to me would be roast meat.

Well sometimes nightmares come true, and indeed, the first meal was one of roast beef. I am sure that they were fully cognisant of the fact that I was vegetarian and that is why they are cooked the roast beef. When I showed some reluctance to eat the meat part of the meal that aroused considerable anger at me. If I showed the intention to grow and silently meditate then there would be anger at the “fact”that I wasn’t “pulling my weight”. Not only that while I had spent my money to travel round the world they had lost their hard earned income in the stock market collapse. In short, because of this, I was a "bludger”.

June said she wasn’t prepared to cook for me any more so I can bloody well go and buy us pizzas. I went out with Jeremy to buy pizzas the dinner and when I got back sister-in-law June completely lost her self-control and refuse to eat anything bought my by me told me to leave the house and not come back until I had “change my ways” and that I would die a lonely old man.

I did in fact get to come back but every interaction with my sister-in-law was fraught – for example, at a party they were talking about the difficulty of maintaining sufficiently low weight on yachting races. I tentatively mentioned that perhaps spirulina might be an answer. Again June went apoplectic with rage, “how dare you say this! I am a dietitian!” I remember leaving the better end dining table and going for a long walk in toning loving kindness meditation, “May I be well. They June be well.” The fact was, I was livid.

Fast forward to my relationship with Pam, the first experience she had of my brother was when he and June visited Wellington. He rang me to tell me that he was going to visit us later, so we put off any plans for the afternoon and waited for him. We waited for several hours and no Jeremy. In the end, I think I rang, and I think all he said was “I couldn’t come – I had to play a game of golf”

Jeremy was always nice to Pam but acted towards me with the contempt that I could not even begin to understand.

When my sister Kathy and her husband David were coming out to New Zealand from England it was understood that I would stay with them also. Once I had bought tickets and was getting ready to go by brother dropped the bombshell, at the last minute, that I was not welcome to stay and if I want to come I could stay on the other side of Auckland with his mother-in-law, Florence.

Naturally enough I was pretty upset and said so and when he responded with his characteristic self-righteous anger I said this was simply how I thought – hence response was that I was holding on to past experiences and I “shouldn’t think that way”!

A normal family relationship. With my sister Kathy and brother-in-law David

Kathy and David kindly spent the money on a ticket so that I could join them in Christchurch for a few days, a face-saving and compassionate solution.
In the early 90s my brother contracted a very serious auto immune condition that affects the kidneys, Good Pastures Disease. Naturally we were very concerned about Jeremy’s health and we rang every week to check on how he was. We usually spoke to June who was very frank and informative about his condition. We even drove up to Taupo to see my brother, taking care to stay elsewhere. The meeting was convivial and warm but Pam took June shopping to get her out of Jeremy and my hair so we could spend some time together.

When I mentioned this to Jeremy a wee while ago he professed to have no memory of our having visited or my having rung him regularly. I am sure, that even if he was so out of it with his condition that his wife would have mentioned it to him later on. Surely he must’ve known.

When my partner Pam suffered from melanoma and when it was touch and go whether she would fully recover or not Jeremy was always kind and invariably asked, on the phone to help Pam was.

The thing was that never once over the years has he asked after me or my health, or about my work, or about anything else that was personal to me.

Striking a pose at a family gathering - my brother is quite the public speaker

2003 likely first Centennial of an accident in Rotorua when a tourist party was caught in the geyser eruption and my grandmother’ s two sisters were killed. Pam and I travelled up for the reunion and in the morning of the ceremony I went to visit June and Jeremy in their motel room. No mention was made of arrangements so I went back to Pam who wanted to take a walk to the lake front. There we met Robina who was also there for the reunion and we had a nice chat and continued a walk.

We came back to find the motel is empty so we drove into Rotorua and somehow found the group in a restaurant having breakfast. Jeremy was livid that we hadn’t turned up for breakfast despite the fact that we knew nothing about it and turned out that everyone was about to leave the ceremony and we weren’t ready. I can’t remember the details but somehow, on this occasion June saved the day and we made it to the reunion.

Straight out of Hollywood - the smiles that belie the reality

From that day essentially, my brother has never not spoken to me and I have on more than one location, written to him saying that I wanted a friendly relationship with him but that I felt that he would have to take the first step.

That first step was never taken.

Another nail in the coffin, it would seem, was when we were invited for the one and only time to their holiday house in Taupo over Easter. Unfortunately, Pam’s aunt died and we had to attend her funeral so had to cancel our trip to Taupo. Needless to say, the invitation has never been repeated and I feel that we have never been forgiven.

I have seen Jeremy only three times in the intervening years, the first being at a family reunion in Christchurch when he never came near me except to suggest that I might want to speak to h his son Richard. A text I sent suggesting that we meet up went unanswered.

Leaving for overseas in 2008 I did get a chance to stay the night with them and as it turned out they were leaving for holiday from Auckland airport at about the same time so we shared a shuttle. I was waiting for some chance the whole time to have a chat with them but that was always some urgency or they were bickering. I did have a photo opportunity as June photograph Jeremy and I putting on false smiles.

Jeremy did come down to Wellington and we spent some time together – I suspect mostly because he needed a lift to our uncle’s funeral in the Wairarapa. However, this was a reasonably convivial meeting, may be because we were both free from June’s overpowering presence.

Since then the most of the period the only contact we had was through Jeremy sending emails with cute little puppies or giving some argument for his right wing views or in favour of the State of Israel. In the case of the latter he managed to provoke the response but I’m sure that he was looking for and when I destroyed his arguments, one by one, line by line, he became furious.

When I became seriously ill I sent him emails letting him know but have never had any response.

Me in late 2014

When I found out that I had a malignant melanoma I rang him with the delusional thought that he might perhaps engage. All he said was “gotta go, gotta go, can’t talk – we’ve got to go out to dinner”. This was followed, in the weekend, by some texts explaining he couldn’t ring because he was a guest of my cousin’s.

Needless to say, that was it – I never heard anything from him.

Just occasionally he might respond to an email that I send him – ostensibly friendly – but without ever engaging personally.

This has always been incredibly hurtful to me and I have always struggled to understand why my brother has treated me in a way that I would not treat my worst enemy. I can understand that he might have some unspoken, maybe unacknowledged grudges, but being a reasonably empathetic person I find it very hard to understand how someone could allow their relationship with their sibling to become so poisonous without any attempt to resolve the situation.

I am left with the feeling that often arises that I might leave this life without being able to restore a normal, if not friendly relationship with my elder brother.

I am fairly confident that I am not making this up, or that the situation is not entirely of my own making, when I hear similar stories and complaints from others.

If I am at fault it is probably not being able to fully let go and still wishing that I could just pick up the phone and have an opportunity to “chew the fat” with my elder brother but the sad fact is that that has never going to happen and it makes me very sad.

As I have become increasingly unwell but it is not only the situation that is gnawed at me but generally, as it relates to my larger family, the phone has been silent, and nobody, has but a single time, enquired after my health.

I have had cousins that I have always kept in touch with, and tried to support in times of trouble so it is a matter of sadness that in terms of my family, I have to bear this alone.

I have made a determination that I am not going to be, as usual, the only one to get in touch.

I feel blessed that I have a wonderful partner and good friends – also I have rediscovered a very old, and dear childhood friend and we are able to share with each other much of our pain.

I often feel that it must be a matter of my personal karma that my condition goes largely unrecognised as well as undiagnosed by the medical fraternity. If nothing else it is a hard lesson of letting go of any attachment to the idea that things should be any one particular way


Over the Christmas period, unsolicited by me, I got a Facebook "friendship" request from my brother, which at some urging I accepted. During that time I have not heard a single word from my brother: in fact, a Christmas telephone message from Pam went unanswered.

Today when I checked I found that I have not only been "unfriended" - as well as blocked - by my brother.

I have to conclude that he used his status as "friend" to lurk on my Facebook page and, in the ab sense of any direct communication from me, has risen to a state of righteous  anger over criticism of his beloved Israel (when one of it was meant for his eyes in the first place).

I did get a brief communication letting myself and sister, Kathy, know that his wife June has breast cancer. The whole communication reeked of total denial of the situation and even concluded with the words, "there goes summer!"  The inconvenience of his wife having chemotherapy, one presumes, was going to get in the way of summer in the Taupo cottage.

Being a reasonable empathetic person, I sent a card off with a single line, "my prayers and thoughts will be with you" and communications have been limited by me to one-line acknowledgements. I would never cut anyone off, but in view of past history I am no longer willing to reach out, only to have my and cut off.

If my brother ever reached out and began with an honest acknowledgement of the roots of his enmity I am sure I would find (as I always have) the ability to respond with love.

But then again, pigs will fly: I have learnt to recognise that, due to his own disabilities and led by his wife, that this will never happen and I just have to live with the consequences.

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